Maryland's highest court to weigh in on Syed case

Maryland’s highest court has agreed to consider whether to reinstate the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, the subject of the immensely popular “Serial” podcast.

The Court of Appeals decided Thursday to hear the state’s argument that Syed’s original defense did not violate the Constitution’s guarantee to an effective counsel.

It’s the latest development in a drawn-out case that captured global attention in 2014 with the “Serial” podcast. More than a decade earlier, Syed was convicted for the killing of his former girlfriend, Woodlawn High School classmate Hae Min Lee. He was sentenced to life in prison, but maintains his innocence.

The state’s second-highest court upheld in March a decision to overturn Syed’s 2000 conviction, with the intention of sending it back to Circuit Court for a retrial. The Court of Special Appeals found that Syed’s former attorney failed her client when she decided not to call on a key alibi witness at his trial. Syed remains incarcerated.

But Attorney General Brian Frosh appealed, saying that the Constitution doesn’t — and shouldn’t — require lawyers to pursue every possible alibi that’s brought to them. Doing so would compel attorneys to chase down witnesses who might present risks to their cases and provide testimony that contradicts a defendant’s statements, all because of “what that lead could have meant looking back at the trial after conviction.”

The lower court’s ruling, Frosh argued in a paper co-signed by special assistant attorney general Thiru Vignarajah, threatens to “dramatically broaden the work required by the Constitution and stripping [defense attorneys] of the discretion and presumption of reasonableness with respect to which leads they pursue and which they forgo.”

The case has been added to the high court’s September term. It will be months before Syed finds out whether his conviction will stand or he will receive a new trial.

C. Justin Brown, Syed’s attorney, said he was “disappointed that this process is going to be dragged out even longer.”

“However,” he said, “we understand that this is our system of law and we are confident that we will prevail in the Court of Appeals.”

The high court will review whether Syed’s former attorney, the late M. Cristina Gutierrez, was wrong to pursue an alibi strategy without speaking to one potential witness: Asia McClain. “Serial” host Sarah Koenig examined that question throughout her podcast, which was downloaded millions of times and launched legions of listeners on a years-long quest to piece together more information about the case.

McClain — now McClain Chapman — claimed that she saw Syed at the Woodlawn library during the time that prosecutors said Lee was killed.

The Court of Special Appeals found that “deficient performance” by Gutierrez, and specifically her failure to call McClain, “prejudiced Syed’s defense.”

The Court of Appeals will also review questions about the cellphone evidence used to place Syed at Leakin Park, where Lee's body was found.

Syed was granted a post-conviction hearing in February 2016, after a hearing that included testimony from McClain Chapman. A retired Baltimore judge vacated Syed’s conviction four months later and ordered a new trial. Judge Martin Welch, who had denied Syed’s previous request for a new court date, said the original legal team should have raised more questions about the reliability of cellphone tower evidence.

The state appealed the lower-court judge’s ruling. Syed's team then filed a separate conditional appeal, asking the court to study the alibi question.

The Court of Special Appeals rejected the argument that questions over cellphone tower evidence justified a new trial, but accepted that Syed’s defense should have called McClain Chapman to the stand.

Lee’s family issued a statement in 2016 after Syed’s new trial was granted.

“We do not speak as often or as loudly as those who support Adnan Syed, but we care just as much about this case. We continue to grieve,” the family said in a statement at the time. “We continue to believe justice was done when Mr. Syed was convicted of killing Hae.”

trichman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/TaliRichman

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